Automat Time Machine

Let’s Have Another Cup Of Coffee (1932) by Irving Berlin as performed by the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1942, featuring vocals by Marion Hutton, and Ernie Caceres and the ModernairesBerlin wrote this song while sitting in the Automat and it appears in his 1932 Broadway musical, Face the Music.  The opening scene takes place in an Automat, where a group of formerly wealthy people drink coffee and discuss better times to come.

Everything old is new again… and this blog posting is guaranteed to transport you back to another time and place.

The Automat changed the way we eat.

The year is 1951 and James Dean has just taken up residence in the bustling metropolis of New York City, the mecca of post-WWII culture, the newest of Jazz, the newest painters, of Ballet dancers, and a scene he knew he was destined to become a part of.

By mid-January our New Years resolutions have already started to crumble.  This featured recipe, the Horn and Hardart Automat’s Queen Bee Cake, is so good you just won’t care.  (The original full recipe and a step-by-step cook-along with my personal preparation notes appear at the end of the blog.)  It’s a cake with the sweet and delicious flavor of history and several fascinating stories to go along. (As a reminder, you can click on any of the images within the blog to see them full-sized.)

HELLO NEW YORK?  THIS IS THE LITTLE PRINCE…

James Dean was disillusioned with life in California.  College didn’t seem to offer much in the way of advancing his career and the jobs in Hollywood weren’t materializing as he thought they should.  New York is were he needed to be…it was where everything that was cutting-edge was happening.  Television was booming there and creative, experimental things were happening on and off-Broadway.  He determined he would attend “the greatest school of  the theater”…The Actors Studio.  New York would be his key to success.

With financial and moral support from a few friends (Rogers Brackett, the Reverend James DeWeerd, Marcus and Ortense Winslow and others) he made the move.  It would prove to be both a very challenging and rewarding period for him…with many ups and downs.

“New York overwhelmed me. For the first few weeks, I only strayed a couple of blocks from my hotel off Times Square. I would see three movies a day in an attempt to escape from my loneliness and depression. I spent $150 of my limited funds just on seeing movies.”

James Dean
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59 West 44th Street, Manhattan

His friend, mentor, and patron back in California, Rogers Brackett, had arranged for Jim to meet up with his close friend as soon as he arrived, composer Alec Wilder.  He phoned immediately, saying “Hello Mr. Wilder?  This is The Little Prince,” (referencing the Antoine de St. Exupery book).  Wilder met Dean in the lobby of the famous Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenue.  James ate a large and extravagant breakfast, filling Wilder with all sorts of improbable tales. Wilder found him likable and amusing…after breakfast, he helped Jim find a much more reasonably priced residence, just steps away at the Iroquois Hotel (you can see the awning for the Iroquois in the lower right of this photo, just past the sign for the WigWam Bar).

The Algonquin was a popular place to “see and be seen.”  It had been the home of the “Algonquin Round Table,” whose famous members included Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, Edna Ferber, Harpo Marx, Tallulah Bankhead, and other notable New York writers, actors, critics, and intellectuals (the group would later start the New Yorker magazine).  Jim would frequent the lobby lounge and befriend the hotel staff, often hanging out with the doormen or sitting on the bench opposite the front desk, alongside the bellhops.

Dean came and went from the Iroquois Hotel several times.

The lobby of the Iroquois hotel, as it looked when Dean was a resident.

The lobby of the Iroquois hotel, as it looked when Dean was a resident.

The rooms were tiny, but superior to the cramped cubicles of the Westside YMCA, where he resided when jobs and money weren’t flowing (or on the couch or floor of a friend’s apartment).  Jim’s room had only a white painted wrought iron bed and a ratty old chair (with a tiny attached bathroom).  He spent lots of his “alone time” there…known to lay on the bed naked or in his underwear, his head propped against the wrought iron headboard, playing his

Dean with his recorder while shooting East of Eden

Dean with his recorder while shooting East of Eden

newly purchased recorder.  He rarely used the chair.

Dean’s first and newest friend in the big city, Alec Wilder, had taken a liking to the young, charismatic actor, and composed a song for him to play on the recorder.  Dean practiced the piece endlessly, then called Wilder up and played the tune over the phone, anxious for his approval.  He played “beautifully” according to all accounts.  That same recorder would make the move back to Hollywood with him where he played duets with Burl Ives between shooting scenes in East of Eden.

The Iroquois as it looks today. Dumont's Barbershop was located in the door to the left of the main entrance.

The Iroquois as it looks today. Dumont’s Barbershop was located in the door to the left of the main entrance.

Down in the Iroquois Hotel lobby through a narrow wood and glass door was the Dumont Barber Shop.  (The door to the lobby can be seen in the photo below of barber Louis Fontana, behind his left shoulder)  Jim stopped in when he had important auditions to go to.  It was there that barber Louis Fontana created the iconic haircut on Jim that would be replicated by millions of teenagers world-wide.

On one occasion Jim was being threatened with eviction from the hotel due to lack of money… Fontana successfully convinced the manager to extend Jim credit.  Dean had reliably paid his debts when he needed a haircut but didn’t have cash and he assured them Dean was good on his word.

Dumont's Barbershop in 1998, taken on one od David Loehr's New York Walking Tours of James Dean sights

Dumont’s Barbershop in 1998, taken on one od David Loehr’s New York Walking Tours of James Dean sights

Dumont Barbershop in 1988, photographed by David Loehr.

Dumont Barbershop in 1988, photographed by David Loehr.

Dean stayed in room 74 (and room 802 at another period).  His neighbor in room 73 was David Diamond (coincidentally, another composer) whom he also managed to charm into writing a piece of music just for him to play on his recorder.  Dean regularly invited Diamond to go up to the corner (44th St and 6th Ave) for coffee at his favorite spot…The Automat.

James Dean's barber Louis Fontana, pictured with Maxine Rowland (lifelong James Dean fan from Xenia, OH), photo courtesy of David Loehr from his 1998 walking tour of NYC James Dean sights.

James Dean’s barber Louis Fontana, pictured with Maxine Rowland (lifelong James Dean fan from Xenia, OH), photo courtesy of David Loehr from his 1998 walking tour of NYC James Dean sights.

49 W 44th St

49 W 44th St

 

 

 

 

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LET’S HAVE ANOTHER CUP OF COFFEE…

The Automat was a revolutionary restaurant concept.  The first was opened in Philadelphia in 1902 by partners Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart.  10 years later they opened their first New York location in Times Square.  Horn and Hardart’s Automat offered delicious home-style food from rows of chrome and glass vending machines that were operated with nickels.  Through tiny windows, hungry customers could see the exact plate of hot or cold food being purchased, put a coin in the slot and turn the chrome knob which opened that door.  At their peak, Horn and Hardart would have 180 locations, serving 800,000 people a day.

This interior is the Automat most frequented by Dean at the end of the block from his apartment at the Iroquois Hotel,

This interior is the Automat most frequented by Dean at the end of the block from his apartment at the Iroquois Hotel,

The coffee made them famous…it was a New Orleans-style brew (made with Chicory…co-owner Frank was from New Orleans), flowing from shiny brass, dolphin-headed dispensers (copied from antiquities of Pompeii) for only a nickel.  The coffee was always fresh and the restaurants were clean, efficient, and well lit.  Round Carrera marble-topped tables were surrounded by solid oak chairs…an Art Deco elegance appealed to every aspect of New York society.  It was a favorite of Gloria Vanderbilt, of high-earning executives, and of working class and lower income New Yorkers who all sat side by side.  The Automat was preserved in popular culture with several Hollywood films including Easy Living (1937), That Touch of Mink (1962) with Doris Day and Carey Grant, Rocky (1976), When Harry Met Sally (1989), and in the novels Rosemary’s Baby (1967), and In God We Trust, All Others Must Pay Cash (1966, the book that A Christmas Story is based upon).

There was no interaction with waitresses…only a lone “nickel-thrower” occupied the chrome booth at the back of the dining hall, with her rubber tipped fingers, changing larger denominations into nickels.  Customers grabbed brown Bakelight trays and chose from the extensive variety of sandwiches, meats, salads, vegetables, soups, and desserts on display through the glass windows.  Low prices made dining out affordable.  Meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, mashed turnips, baked beans, huckleberry pie, and tapioca pudding were among the favorites that kept New Yorkers coming back time after time.  Behind the walls of chrome existed a secret army of workers, refilling the slots as soon as they were emptied, heating and plating the food that came to each location from a large central kitchen.

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The Automat, 1927, oil on canvas, Edward Hopper

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In 1927, artist Edward Hopper immortalized the Automat in a painting by the same name.  A solitary woman is shown in an (atypically) empty Automat…warming her single un-gloved hand with a cup of coffee.  The viewer feels like a voyeur, due to the woman’s bare legs.  The emptiness of the night sky behind her seems to be a comment on how an individual can feel isolated, even in a city as vast and populated as New York.  This painting was used as the cover illustration for a 1995 TIME magazine article on stress and depression.   Dean certainly experienced the feeling of isolation during this phase of his life.  (Coincidentally, Hopper also painted Nighthawks (1942), another portrait of a late night diner that years later was parodied into the popular, kitchy poster art of Gottfried Helnwein’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1984), depicting James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, and Marilyn Monroe as customers being served by Elvis.)

 

James Dean, having coffee and a snack at the Times Square Automat location as photographed by Dennis Stock.

James Dean, having coffee and a snack at the Times Square Automat location as photographed by Dennis Stock.

Advertising photo.

Early advertising photo.

James Dean enjoyed the ability to observe the large cross-section of people interacting (without having to be engaged if he chose not to).  The food tasted like home cooking and was easy on his tight budget.  It was the beginning of affordable fast food.

Families could now afford the luxury of dining out and the Automat adopted the motto, “Less work for mother.”    They expanded the concept to include waitress service at select “cafeteria” locations and stores where you could buy “heat and eat” dishes, bakery items, and ground coffee to take home.

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(Click any one of these images to start a slideshow of these fabulous Automat photos.)

 

The decline of the Automat came, when the wholesale price of coffee increased…Horn and Hardart were losing 2 cents on every nickel cup sold.  Because their machines accepted only nickels, the price had to be raised to 10 cents.  Customers were outraged and began buying their coffee at shops that only charged 7 cents.  Despite the drastic drop in coffee sales, they remained popular through the 1960s.  Competition from newer fast food restaurants eventually displaced the Automat, who converted many of their locations to Burger Kings.  The last Automat (at 42nd Street and 3rd Ave) closed in 1991, but will always be a beloved memory for many New Yorkers.

HE COULD DO ANYTHING…

Dean struggled through his first months in New York.  Acting jobs were difficult to find for an unknown.  While working as a behind-the-scenes stunt tester for the game show Beat the Clock (the show paid him $5 a day), the director allowed him to take home the giant tubs of tapioca pudding sent by the show’s sponsor for use during the live commercials (he hadn’t been able to afford to eat for 2 days).  Ultimately, the show had to let him go because he was too good.

 

Dean was very poor, had no money, so we had him on. But we had to fire him after a short time, because he could do anything—he was the best coordinated human being I ever knew! There was no trick or stunt that he couldn’t accomplish with the greatest of ease; we had balancing stunts and all that jazz—nothing he couldn’t do. He had absolute unerring control over his body,”

Franklyn Heller, producer

The tone of Dean’s letters home to the Winslow farm and to friends gradually improved as jobs became more plentiful and he developed new friendships.  He wrote that one of his favorite things to do was go ice skating at Rockefeller Center.  Residents at the Iroquois recalled that Dean often carried his gym bag with his skates inside.

Rockefeller Center as it appeared in 1952

Rockefeller Center as it appeared in 1952

Rockefeller Center ice skating rink

Rockefeller Center ice skating rink

Advertisement for the Rockefeller Center skating rink.

Newspaper advertisement for the Rockefeller Center skating rink.

IT’S ALL THE BUZZZZZ…

The Queen Bee Cake was an eternal favorite at Horn and Hardart’s Automat and an intrinsically interesting recipe.  It has the rich, buttery, exotic flavors of honey, caramel, and almonds, without being overly sweet.  The cake resembles an egg-y French Brioche, then is filled with a moist custard layer and topped with a crunchy, sticky, caramelized topping of honey and almond flakes.   It’s a cake rich with history and light on the tongue.  Perfect when served with a good cup of strong coffee.

“Cakes” as we know them are a relatively modern invention.  Prior to the use of baking powder, bi-carbonate of soda, or other leavening agents that only started being used after 1830, cakes were made with yeast (and that yeast didn’t come in a convenient 3-pack, foil-lined pouch from the grocery store).  The homemaker would need to visit the nearest brewery to obtain a culture of brewing yeast.  That yeast would be fed with flour and water, continuing to grow as long as it was fed…that same culture could last for years.  It seems a bit of a blurry line between vintage cakes and sweet breads…sometimes only the shape it was baked in as the defining difference.

This cake is made with yeast, which tells us it’s a very old recipe.  It’s a variation of a traditional old-world German cake called “Bienenstich,” translated as “Bee Sting” cake.  The mythology behind the name tells us that a honey bee fell in love with the cake and stung the baker as he tried to slice into it.  An alternate story tells of villagers successfully defending their town from marauding invaders by throwing bee hives at them.  This cake was baked in celebration of their victory.

While researching this recipe (and all the Automat recipes in Recipes for Rebels were extremely difficult to research), I was never able to determine at what period it first appeared at the Automat.  Joseph Horn was from Philadelphia, so it’s very likely this could have been a favorite regional recipe of Pennsylvania Dutch origin.  I later learned that the upper east side neighborhood of Yorkville and the borough of Queens in New York had high populations of German immigrants…and this seems to me the most likely answer as to the origin and time period of the Automat’s renamed “Queen Bee Cake.”  Similar cakes appear in Polish, Hungarian, and several other eastern European cultures.

First I’ll give you the recipe as I found it, followed by a photo cook-along with my personal tips and the trials and errors in recreating this unique and wonderful Queen Bee Cake.

HORN AND HARDART AUTOMAT’S QUEEN BEE CAKE

CAKE INGREDIENTS:

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon of salt

1 envelope, active dry yeast

2 cups flour

4 Tablespoons butter

1/2 cup milk

1 large egg

2 eggs yolks

DIRECTIONS:

TOPPING INGREDIENTS:

3 Tablespoons butter

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 cup slivered, blanched almonds

1/4 c honey

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

DIRECTIONS:

FILLING INGREDIENTS:

3 large egg yolks

6 Tablespoons sugar

3 Tablespoons flour

1 cup light cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

DIRECTIONS:

HERE’S HOW IT LOOKED WHEN I MADE IT…

The ingredient list seemed pretty straight forward…the yeast used “back in the day,” would have been a more flavorful variety…but the “active dry” worked beautifully for this rendition.  The “slivered, blanched almonds” should be the paper thin “flaked” variety if you can get them…they look more like honey bees on the finished cake and the texture is preferable to the coarser “slivered” style.

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A metal measuring cup was big enough for melting the butter and warming the milk…a separate sauce pan wasn’t necessary.  (Greek stoves have a tiny little burner in front, just fot the purpose of making Greek coffee…isn’t it cute?)

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Mixing the wet into the dry ingredients…gradually mix in the remaining flour

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It’s a very loose and wet dough at this point.  It took about an additional 1/2 cup of flour for mine to reach a very soft but non-sticky stage…this will vary, depending upon your flour, and the weather, and humidity of the day…

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After about 5 minutes of kneading, the dough was smooth and elastic…still very soft and velvety, but not sticky.

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Place in a well oiled bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap.

I turned my oven on to the lowest temp while kneading and turned it back off.  This was my warm environment for letting the dough rise for the next hour.

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It rose beautifully.  Punch the dough down and let it rest 10-15 minutes.

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Pat the dough into an even layer on the bottom of a 9″ springform pan.  Next time I make this, I intend to use a parchment paper collar on the inside diameter…it will make for easier and cleaner removal from the pan and help with “tenting” the cake as it bakes in my tiny European oven (the top heating elements are too close to the cake).  But this probably isn’t necessary for most.  This can also be baked in a square pan with the finished cake cut into square serving pieces…but aesthetically, I like the round cake.

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After your cake has had it’s second rising (this is a timing thing…you want the caramel to be hot when you add it to the cake.  If it’s cooled too much, it will be too thick), melt butter and brown sugar in a saucepan, add honey and bring to a boil.  remove from heat.

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I ended up making this part 3 times…it’s not hard…it was just one of those days.  The original recipe instructs you to add in the almonds while still cooking…this resulted in all my flakes breaking up and destroying the look I was going for.  Add the almonds and extract after removing from the heat…stirring just enough to incorporate.

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Carefully spoon the hot topping over your risen cake.  Start about an inch from the outside edge and work towards the center.  Be delicate and very careful not to go too heavy in the middle or your risen dough will deflate.  Be somewhat light around the outside edge as well, because too much will turn hard during baking and difficult to eat.

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Now you can start to see where the name comes from…it really looks like a hive of bees swarming in honey.  Bake in preheated 325F oven for 30-35 minutes.  Watch it carefully…the topping can easily burn!  I had to tent the top with foil.  It will rise to about the top of your pan.  When browned and risen, remove from oven and cool in pan about 10 minutes.  Run a knife around the outside edge and remove ring.  Set on a wire rack to complete cooling.

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Make the pastry cream by beating eggs and sugar until thickened.  (The pastry cream can be make a day ahead, because it should be cool before assembling the cake.)  Mix in the flour.  (I prefer to use cornstarch in making pastry cream…but this old-fashioned recipe called for flour.  Truth be told, there probably is no real flavor difference.  I used the flour called for this time…you do it how you like best.)

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Heat cream and slowly beat into egg mixture (beating constantly so as not to end up with lumpy scrambled eggs).  Return the mix to the sauce pan and heat until thick, whisking constantly.  Remove from heat, add extracts, stir and refrigerate until completely cool.

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This is an entirely optional step…I put my pastry cream in a piping bag.  You can alternately spread it with a spatula like an extra thick layer of icing if you prefer.

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Cut cake in half using a long serrated knife, cutting around the circumference, gradually working in to the center.  Place cake bottom on serving plate.  Some people choose to pre-slice the top at this stage (it makes it easier to slice before serving, avoiding the cream layer squishing out the sides).  I prefer the cake be intact for it’s handsome presentation.

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Pipe a series of blobs about 1/2 inch in from the edge.  Fill in the center with the remaining pastry cream (neatness doesn’t count here).  Replace the top, pressing slightly until the cream comes to the edge.

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Refrigerate cake to firm up the cream filling.  Remove from refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving.  It keeps well, but I can’t tell you how long because it never lasts!

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Serve with a rich cup of coffee (New Orleans-style with chicory is best) and regale your guests with stories of villagers tossing bee hives at one another, of the Automat, of 5 cent coffee that poured from the mouths of brass dolphins, of ice skating at Rockefeller Center, and of course…James Dean in New York.

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I hope you love this cake as much as we do!  Leave a comment or send me a picture of your results…

Within the pages of my book, Recipes for Rebels: In the kitchen with James Dean, you can find 5 more classic recipes from the Automat and around 200 other equally fascinating recipes with stories.  The book can be purchased on Amazon.com or from this list of fine independent retailers

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I love reading your thoughts and comments…leave me a note below, subscribe to receive emails about future postings, and freely use the social media sharing buttons to share this story with your friends and family…

 

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